My Favourite Untranslated Books
My native language is Portuguese, and I’ve been reading in English since my early 20s. When I moved to the Netherlands in 2019 and started working at an indie bookshop, I slowly began to add books written in Dutch to my repertoire, in an effort to improve my language skills. Reading in several languages can feel like having a superpower. After all, you get the chance to read several works in the languages they were written in, rather than having to rely on sometimes unfulfilling translations.
But it can be tough, especially if you like to recommend books — and many bookish people do — when you find out that the book that would be a perfect match for someone you know isn’t yet translated into a language they can understand. Or when a book by an author you love and admire isn’t yet available in languages you can read. So I started considering books I want to recommend, and how much I’ve been longing to share their existence with others — even if I cannot share a translated title.
Below is a list of books I and a few Book Riot contributors have read in their original language that we can’t wait to see get translated into English, or that we are waiting to be translated from their original language into one we speak. They are mostly in Dutch and Portuguese, although I hope to try my hand at a book written in Spanish this year, since it’s a language I can also understand pretty well, but have never tried to read. A 2023 challenge.
A Vida No Céu by José Eduardo Agualusa
This is a story the author wrote for his children, and although it is certainly fitting for younger audiences, I think it is an amazing story for adults. In it, the Earth has been flooded, but humanity has found a way to survive and thrive, living in the sky, in balloons and Zeppelins.
In this whole new world — which maintains similarities to the one flooded below — two friends are trying to solve a mystery, in an adventure of a lifetime. It’s a hopeful dystopian tale.
Confrontaties by Simone Atangana Bekono
One of the best books I’ve read last year.
Sometimes it is difficult to find diversity in the (very white) literary Dutch market, but Bekono is a new voice that is coming to stay (her newest book Zo Hoog De Zon Stond has come out recently, and it is another pearl).
In Confrontaties, a young Black girl finds herself in a youth detention centre, and as we get to know her, we also get to learn about the episodes that led her to be standing where she is.
Charlatans by Daphne Huisden
Another amazing voice in this new wave of Dutch writers, Huisden has written the magical story you need when someone asks you for a fantasy tale that also works for adults (or when someone asks you what to read when they are looking for something like the you-know-which book we don’t want to recommend anymore). And it’s not just fantasy — it’s also a literary romance, with a wonderful plot and moral dilemmas.
A Lua De Joana by Maria Tereza Maia Gonzalez
This book was a staple of Portuguese literature for young adult readers back when I was a teenager, and if I am not mistaken — I left Portugal ten years ago, so the trends might have changed — it is still one of those classic titles that teens talk about and read.
The author has written a whole collection of books for teens, which I devoured and loved as a young adult, and A Lua De Joana had a big impact on me back then. It talks about drugs and how easy it is to slip into them, about relationships, loss, and how we think we have time, until we don’t.
Although I loved the book at 15, and I would still recommend it to teens today, I reread the book as an adult and I must say, I wish I hadn’t. I wrote about that here. I would still love to see a translation of it, because it’s the sort of narration young adults could use, and will most certainly like.
Welkom Bij De Club by Thomas Van Der Meer
One of the first novels I have read in Dutch, this is a fictionalised biographical story of van der Meer’s own transition. As a trans man, van der Meer takes the reader through the motions of what it takes to become fully who he has always been.
One of the things I love the most about the author’s writing — he writes an opinion piece every other week for a national newspaper called De Volkskrant — is his way of telling sad stories in a hilarious way. He does not dismiss their seriousness, and yet, he makes all those dreadful things feel less dreadful. Thomas’ personal story and how he tells it makes me want to recommend this to everyone.
E Se Amanhã O Medo by Ondjaki
This was my first work by Ondjaki, and it made me want to read more of his stories. This short-story collection focuses on ordinary people, which see themselves involved in extraordinary situations, and is filled with magical realism, mysterious happenings, and impossible things. Ondjaki’s writing is vibrant, poetic, and I wish more people could read this specific collection of stories.
O Chão Dos Pardais by Dulce Maria Cardoso
The first time I’d heard of this writer was at a book festival in Brussels; I was there to watch another writer’s book talk, and I left mesmerised. One particular thing that blew my mind is the fact that, for each of her romances, Cardoso writes the whole book, deletes it entirely, and then writes it again. O Chão Dos Pardais was the first novel I’ve read of hers, and I hope any of her other works get translated.
It can be said that the centre of the story is a party: a party in which several characters come together, and their stories come to light, resting at that moment from all tragedies of life.
Mimi O Sumaseba by Aoi Hiiragi
This is a story about a girl’s love for books, a boy who falls for her, music, art, and the power of dreams. If you are a Studio Ghibli fan, you may recognise this book by its English film title, Whisper Of The Heart. Although the movie is widely known, the manga that inspired it is not available in English, and I know a few people who would love to be able to read the story the movie is based on. That’s the curse of loving books so much: even when you do get to see the movie, reading the book is always a different — and usually deeper — experience.
Which books would you like to see translated?
Looking for more? Book Riot contributor Leah Rachel has a whole series about books in translation, and I have written before about wanting others to read your favourite untranslated books.